92. Flour and Turnip
Flour and Turnip
Hours later, still before the sun had risen, Holwyn slipped inside her master’s quarters. She found her brother waiting for her in the parlour. “How is he?” she asked softly.
Sadness was written on Holebert’s face. “He has not been to bed. He merely sits upon it, staring blankly. He does not answer when I speak to him.”
“Let me try.” She passed her brother and entered the jarl’s personal chamber. “Theodoric?” she called to him with a gentle voice.
As Holebert had told her, the jarl sat on the edge of his bed staring at an empty wall. He did not stir or turn his head when Holwyn spoke his name, but he did respond. “What have you learned?” His voice was toneless.
“None saw the actual – incident,” she told him cautiously. “A kingthane was seen by that wall not long after.”
“He was spotted from afar by a guard standing on a tower,” Holwyn explained with hesitation. “The guard paid little notice to him. I could enquire about the movements of the kingthanes and determine his identity, possibly, but success is uncertain. I might learn enough to piece it together, I might not.”
“It will be harder with the prince departing today along with many of the kingthanes and the Hawks,” Holwyn considered. “Those would be the people to question. I could travel with the army and return to you once I know.”
“I know enough,” Theodoric stated monotonously.
“You do, milord?”
“It was that former thane of Isarn. If not him, then one of his companions.”
“I think so as well, milord.” Holwyn stared at her master, searching his face, but it remained devoid of emotion.
“My mind is settled.”
“What will you do?” Holwyn asked carefully.
He finally turned his head to gaze at her. “I will leave this chamber and attend court. I will accept the condolences and this story that she fell by accident. I will appear to be in mourning, nothing more.”
“But?” she dared to add.
“I will find the coward who declared war on the House of Theodstan, and I will kill anyone I see fit until my thirst for revenge is satisfied,” he declared in a calm voice, standing up. “Tell Holebert to come here. I need to dress.” The choice of attire was easy; all of Theodoric’s clothes were black.
Although it belonged to her husband, Mathilde was a rare sight in the dragonlord’s office. Her presence was a sign of how tumultuous the last days had been; she had marched through the antechamber and forced her way into his study without allowing any obstacle to hinder her.
“Calm yourself,” Konstans told her to little effect.
“The Quill is in prison, Theodstan’s sister is dead, and Athelstan has escaped the dungeons to join his brother,” she declared with a clenched jaw. “Everything is unravelling.”
“Athelstan’s escape is unfortunate, but Isarn has not nearly the army he once did. The damage is limited,” Konstans claimed, taking a healthy sip of his undiluted wine.
“This has made Theodstan completely unpredictable,” Mathilde argued. “Before, he could be relied upon to remain passive. Who knows what he intends now?”
“Who knows,” Konstans repeated muttering. “He will be seeking revenge.” The dragonlord paused for a moment. “I need to meet with him now while there is time,” he exclaimed in sudden realisation. “Before we leave. There is no time to waste.” He left in haste, leaving his bewildered wife behind.
In the library tower, Egil was packing his belongings. Although the task was familiar to him, he still had his belongings spread out on his bed to determine what to pack. Along with nearly all his possessions, Kate was also in his room, looking concerned. “What about Master Quill?”
“I don’t know,” Egil admitted, surveying his ink set, feather pens, clothes, and rolls of parchment. “I tried to see him this morning, but they wouldn’t let me in, and I won’t get any more chances before I have to leave.”
“How can you leave at such a time as this?” Kate questioned.
He looked up at her. “Do you think I want to travel with these madmen? They tortured Master Quill,” he spoke with emphasis. “I want to run in the other direction, but that won’t help me or my master, so I am doing as I am told.”
“Why can’t you tell someone? When I saw Lord Elis receive letters from the rebels, I was also scared to talk. But I told the captain, and he made it right,” Kate argued.
“Those were special circumstances,” Egil countered. “Master Quill is the law keeper, and they threw him in a cell, which should tell you what regard they hold the law in. If I say anything, I’ll be right there next to him.”
“Then at least you could look out for him!” Kate almost stamped her foot in frustration.
Anger flashed across Egil’s face, but it quickly subsided. “Just be glad you’re a kitchen girl and not part of any of this. Now, I have to pack, and you have your own duties to attend to.”
“Egil,” she asked hesitantly, “what happens to the library while you’re gone?”
“Happens to it? Nothing,” he replied absentmindedly. “I imagine the kingthanes will keep it locked until my return.”
She stared at him as he picked out what to bring along on the march north; receiving no further reaction from him, she turned on her heel and left the library swiftly.
There was a knock on the door to Eleanor’s room, and with her handmaiden absent, she opened the door herself to find William standing outside, wearing full armour and surcoat. “I just heard about Lady Theodwyn,” he told her with dismay. “You have my deepest sympathies.”
She stood staring at him, hesitating for a moment before she stepped forward to put her arms around him tightly. Although taken aback, he returned the embrace. “I am glad you are here. You are very cold,” she continued. “Have you been out all night?”
He nodded, and they separated; she stepped back into the room, followed by him. “Yet another fruitless search for Brand. Wherever he hides, I cannot reach him, which I hope means he is beyond the reach of his enemies as well.”
“He is clever,” Eleanor declared. “He is probably miles away by now.”
“I doubt it, but let us hope so since I obviously cannot help him.”
“You have done your best,” she consoled him.
“I have done nothing. I could not stop his arrest, his trial, or his execution. I cannot even help him escape,” William admitted bitterly. “I am a knight, not a courtier. It is little wonder I should fail at every turn.”
“You are being too hard on yourself,” Eleanor said in a soothing voice, letting her hand stroke his brow.
“On the contrary, it is important I remind myself. Brand is the same, and he forgot. It does not matter that he wins every battle on the field. He loses every battle in these halls because he does not understand.”
Eleanor bit her lip. “So what will you do?”
He took a deep breath. “Bearing this in mind, I will return to my duty. I came to Middanhal hoping to solicit aid for the campaign in Hæthiod. I will speak with the quartermaster and gain what troops I can, and then I will return to finish the liberation of our homeland.” He hesitated briefly. “You could come with me. You have not been home in Tothmor for ten years if I recall.”
Eleanor considered it before shaking her head. “Arndis has lost her brother and a close friend within the span of days. I cannot abandon her as well.”
“I understand,” William told her. “I will leave soon, I imagine. With summer approaching, I need to take advantage of the season to finish the campaign.”
“Of course,” Eleanor replied, almost masking the disappointment on her face. “The Order has no better knight than you.”
He stared at her with an indeterminable expression on his face. “You are too kind as always, Lady Eleanor.” He gave a bow and left her room.
The jarl of Theodstan strode into his own quarters, where the dragonlord awaited him. The latter bowed his head. “My condolences, my lord, upon your loss.”
“Thank you,” Theodoric replied with indifference. “I was told you were anxiously waiting in my chambers to speak to me. I thought you had a horse waiting to take you north.”
“Hence the reason for my anxiety as time is short,” Konstans explained. He glanced at Holebert, who had originally fetched the jarl. “May we speak privately, my lord?”
There was a moment where Theodoric seemed not to care, but he nodded to his servant, who quickly departed. “What do you want?”
“We are both intelligent men, so I will dispense with pretence. You are aware of who is guilty in Lady Theodwyn’s death?”
The jarl’s eyes and voice changed from dull to cold. “Why?”
“One of the new kingthanes. Ulfrik would be my guess,” Konstans told him.
“That is not what I asked.”
“I want to give you the opportunity to exact your vengeance.”
Theodoric gave a sardonic smile. “Grief may cloud my mood, Konstans, but not my mind. What does it matter to you?”
“A member of a jarl’s family has been slain with impunity,” he explained. “It cannot go unpunished.”
“That sounds likely, but not coming from you.”
“I extend this aid to you now because I hope to rely on your aid in the future,” Konstans admitted. “Should, for instance, a new jarl of Isarn need to be chosen by the Adalthing rather than by our future king.”
Theodoric scrutinised the other man’s face. “You are a hard man to read.”
“It might also come to pass we need to choose another future king,” Konstans finally confessed. “One who will not throw the Quill into shackles.”
The jarl gave another mirthless smile. “Your puppet has cut his strings, has he? Now the rest of us shall pay the price.”
“I grant you that matters have escalated far beyond what any could predict.”
“You have a hand in creating this monster that besets us, Konstans,” Theodoric declared. “Yet I may not hold it against you if you can deliver what you promised. State your plan.”
“The kingthanes, including your sister’s murderer, are untouchable inside this castle. Yet all of these new savages appointed by our prince will travel with him north. An army camp in comparison is susceptible to swift raids.”
“I am aware,” Theodoric remarked with a touch of disdain.
“I am going north to negotiate with Isarn, however futile such an attempt is bound to be. It is common knowledge that Isarn will have troops in the area, and given his lack of honour, none would doubt that he might make such a cowardly attack.”
“I assume that is not all you intend? To tell me things I already know?”
“We have a great number of Isarn uniforms in our possession after defeating their army,” Konstans explained patiently. “My chamberlain, Arion, can give you access to those surcoats.”
The mocking expression disappeared from Theodoric’s face, and he took a deep breath. “I see.”
“You will have some time,” Konstans told him. “The army does not travel fast, and we will be in camp for a while.” He gave a deep bow. “My condolences once more, Jarl Theodoric. I shall leave you in peace.” As they parted, one man wore a faint smile, the other a contemplative look.
Less than an hour later, the Red Hawks in Middanhal marched out to join the rest of their company at the siege of Castle Grenwold. At the front of the long column rode Prince Hardmar with more than twenty kingthanes, most of them newly sworn to his service; the supplies train was in the other end. Unlike his previous journey with an army, a horse had not been provided for Egil, so he had found a seat in the back of a cart carrying large sacks of flour. It was not particularly comfortable, but he could do worse for a seat, and riding the wagon spared his legs the walk and his arms from carrying his belongings.
Red Hawks were marching alongside the carts, acting as rear guard. Soon, one of them caught Egil’s eye. The soldier missed one ear but had an expensive ring in the other along with coloured marks on his skin. While one hand held a spear as he marched, the other had a tendency to stroke the groomed beard on his chin. Eventually, Jorund noticed the young scribe staring and sent him a grin.
“You’re a Dwarf,” Egil pointed out.
As if bewildered, Jorund touched the gold ring in his ear and then grabbed hold of his facial hair. “By my beard, you’re right, lad! I never knew!” He laughed.
“I just meant,” Egil stammered, “I’ve never seen a Dwarven warrior. You’re a Red Hawk, even.”
“You don’t miss anything, do you?” Jorund’s eyes glistened with mirth.
“I didn’t think your people liked to fight.”
This evoked boisterous laughter from the Dwarf. “Are you mad, boy? We fight in our mothers’ wombs, trying to punch our way out. Show me two Dwarves and I’ll show you where the fighting’s at!”
“I didn’t know,” Egil admitted thoughtfully. “The only Dwarves I’ve seen are those at the Mint or working their craft in the shops in town.”
“Inland Dwarves,” Jorund remarked with a superior smile. “I’m from the islands, and like any true islander, travelling is in my blood. I’ve been to every Realm by now and Alcázar beyond. Where I lost this.” He motioned towards his missing ear.
“What happened?” Egil asked excited.
“I had too much to drink one night. Truth be told that happened every night,” Jorund confessed with a wicked grin, “but this time, these fiends notice my ring and don’t know better not to mess with a Dwarf. So they followed me and fell upon me in a dark alley, cutting off my ear and my ring with it, beating and kicking me to a pulp.”
“The halfwits made the mistake of leaving me alive. I woke with a bigger headache than usual and a nasty itch on the left side of my head,” Jorund related. “It took me a while, but I found out each of those bloody ear snatchers’ names and I got my ring back, plus something for my troubles.”
“I have never seen a man wear ear rings,” Egil contemplated. “Only women and Dwarves.”
“It’s an old custom,” Jorund began to explain.
“Jorund, you bow-legged, bearded bastard!” A Hawk with a more elaborate insignia appeared. “Quit your yapper and fall into line, or your only supper will be the whip tonight!”
“Yes, lieutenant!” Jorund replied with a stout expression. “Don’t worry,” he spoke quietly to Egil, “he is all hammer and no nail.” He gave the boy a wink and hurried past the cart, falling into place next to a couple of other Hawks.
Egil turned his head and followed the Dwarf with his eyes. Looking beyond to see the rest of the train, something caught him by surprise. Jumping down from his cart, he ran forward past a couple of other wagons. “Kate!” he exclaimed.
Sitting in another cart was the kitchen girl from Citadel. “I wondered how long before you realised I was here.”
“What on – how? Why?”
“You’re not the only one who gets to go somewhere,” Kate told him with a touch of defiance. “The fine folks need someone to cook for them in camp same as in a castle, and Cook must be tired of me, because she let me leave.” Her demeanour changed into a grin.
“Kate, this isn’t a trip for leisure!” Egil almost tripped over the words in his eagerness to correct her impression. “It isn’t like the stories you read in the books or hear in songs. There could be battles, this is dangerous!”
“Would you prefer I wasn’t here? Would you rather be alone?”
“I didn’t mean that,” Egil defended himself. “I just don’t think you thought this through.”
“I did,” Kate claimed forcefully. “Master Quill is in the dungeons and you are gone, leaving the library locked off and me trapped in the kitchens. I am tired of being left behind.”
Egil walked next to the cart for a few moments, digesting her words. “What’s in that cart?”
“Mostly sacks of vegetables, I think. Turnips, by the feel of them.”
“Mine is better, it’s flour.” He gestured with his head. “Let’s sit there. It’s more comfortable.” With a smile, Kate jumped down and followed him down the row of carts.